Some books I read in 2023

Yeah, I kept reading books, to the surprise of no one. Here were some standouts for me (I read a lot of good books this year and had trouble whittling down the list to a manageable number!):

Peace by Gene Wolfe: Like wandering through a dream. Non-linear and haunted by ghosts (or maybe a single ghost?). I started the year off with this one and it’s stuck with me. One of those books I might’ve turned back to page 1 and started rereading if I hadn’t had so many other books I wanted to read.

Luda by Grant Morrison: There’s something in this to offend just about everyone! It’s about an aging drag queen in a fictional Glasgow. It’s a whodunnit, a love story, and something that doesn’t fit into any kind of genre. There’s minimalist writing and then there’s this one, which turns maximalist up to 11. 

Existential Psychotherapy by Irvin D. Yalom: When someone tells me that a book is their favorite book (or the one they’ve been most influenced by) I’ll go out of my way to read it too. A former coworker of mine recommended this one and I tried to track it down. It took me a while and I managed to get a copy through interlibrary loan (ILL is rad, yall! pretty magical) There’s a lot to chew on in this one, but the key takeaway for me is that psychotherapy often miss the mark because it focuses on symptoms rather than the key underlying issues beneath them, such as, death, freedom, isolation, and meaninglessness. Yeah, it’s a heavy book! I’m glad I read it.

When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamín Labatut: A book of short stories about real people, mostly physicists. Through a kind of fictional nonfiction, Labatut attempts (and succeeds, I think) to explore the terror and loneliness that the people in this book must have felt when thinking new thoughts about the world for the first time. For example, Heisenberg coming to grips with the uncertainty principle. I’ve never read another book like it (except for his newest, The MANIAC). 

The Spear Cuts Through Water by Simon Jimenez: The story in this book is through a revolving matryoshka doll of stories: an immigrant family recounting the myths and fables of their homeland; an epic saga of two heroes defeating a god/emperor; the final point of view moments of nearly every character  mentioned in the book, no matter how minor; and some other things I’ve probably forgotten. Frankly, this book should’ve been an unreadable mess, but somehow Jimenez pulls the strings tightly enough together for it all to make sense. A lovely and unusual book.

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion: Didion writes with harrowing clarity about the madness of grief in the year after her husband dies. As someone who often tries to solve his problems through writing, this was a tough read. Didion deeply questions the value of the act of writing in the face of the death of a loved one. I was humbled by her candor and the depths of her self-reflection, though.

Legends & Lattes by Travis Baldree: A half-orc opens a coffee shop and makes friends along the way. Sweet and light and short. A pick-me-up in novel form.

Galatea 2.2 by Richard Powers: A story about artificial intelligence and language. Really good stuff. A nice alternative way to thinking about this stuff than so much of the foofaraw being thrown around about “AI” these days.

V. by Thomas Pynchon: It’s the last of Pynchon’s books I hadn’t read. At times, baffling and confusing. At others, ineffable and profound. Still others, just the ultimate silliness. There’s a little something of everything in the best of Pynchon’s books, and I’d rank this one with the best. I’d never recommend a Pynchon novel (too much work, I think) but there’s nothing else like it.

Unnatural Ends by Christopher Huang: A solid whodunnit. There’s novel within a novel here and a murder mystery in both.

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry: I don’t consider myself a fan of Westerns, but I thought I’d give this one a chance. Great book! Very very long. Also, just brutally sad at times.

What You Are Looking For Is in the Library by Michiko Aoyama: A librarian helps a bunch of people turn their lives around through the power of books and reading. Very sweet and how could I resist!

The Saint of Bright Doors by Vajra Chandrasekera: A “chosen one” say no thanks! to all that and then moves to a city where he joins a support group of other ex-chosen-ones. A vibrant and creative fantasy about the weight of family and history.

Another time, perhaps

We couldn’t have done different
every misstep, every haltingly spoken word
when I think of the past, sometimes,
eyes water

Out back, this western scrub-jay luxuriates
splashing in and out of the water, bathing, trilling
nearly the same time everyday, no matter the weather
bath water

We too are creatures of habit
and so what if our habits have led us here
splashing in our baths, feeling out
the water

And now I’m thinking of that Alice
who drank and grew and shrank
and floated away on her own tears
salt water

Yes, I want to say, so many yes
and yet the yes doesn’t seem enough
two boats drifting away across
wide water

Maybe at some far time
when the fog of war collapses
our warm hands will clasp
bridge water

On Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry

For most of this book, I was slow rolling cattle, meandering north to Montana. There was always more to graze over the next rise, along the next stretch of plain, another watering place just farther on. Still, the slow turn of pages rambled on, one after another. Long stretches of not much, just rambling inconsequential chat and cattle, punctuated by brief, intense moments of violence and death.

What is a good life? If it’s a life examined, then all the cowboys here fail the test. Again and again and again these men are faced with a chance to have a real connection, to make something good. Again and again and again, they turn away from that. There’s a reason all these men seek out relentless tasks, a near infinite sequence of inconsequential things, until their death arrives.

Don’t pity these men, though. Their stomping, rampaging, thoughtless lives cause harm to all the women and children around them, who make do and carry on as best they can in spite of it all.

These men are not without their charms, however, and it’s easy to see why this book is beloved. Although, on reading it, it’s tough to see how a person would romanticize this time period.

It’s all fun and games until someone pokes their eye out

Words and words and words all piled up in a row standing end on end, leaning, ready to snap or fall over a studious mishmash of logical nonsense I mean, all the words make sense one at a time or maybe three at a time but strung all together, laced up against the brick? Well, let’s just say, it’s not happening.

I suppose there’s some occasional punctuation in there a tidy comma or a lumbering semicolon keeping the whole train from completely coming off the tracks. But it all sort of feels like the periods are just thrown in willy-nilly when there’s no where else for the words to go.

Damn, so much time spent noodling about with words as though they’d ever made much sense or difference. Maybe in aggregate. Like, all together, all those words slurching back and forth, a vasty sea of em. Best not go swimming, there aren’t any lifeguards about.

So many years of things

When I think of my own small bucket of years (compared to the vasty sea of them) it’s humbling, I suppose. Not so many years and days, really, when I think of it. There’s a sea of time out there, past there, flowing out (or maybe ebbing back), so big it’s hard to remember that it’s there. Not even the ticking of clocks helps remind (not that there are so many of those around anymore). There are some trees out my window that have been around easily twice or thrice times my own time, just patiently growing in time, just patiently have been growing in time.

There were small trees planted when we moved in, not so long ago, that were my height, now grown to touch the lines. Our small plum tree now needs a ladder to reach the fruit at its highest height. My own small son now looms as he shuffles by. See all this evidence of times slow roil, that drip drop that fills the bucket. Hey now, where’s all that time go when I’m not looking? I’m reminded of that game of statues. All the kids can only move (or grow) when you’re not looking. Soon, one will tap you on the shoulder, saying, I’m here, you’re it.

How much of the folly of the world is baked into this denial that time rolls ever, ever on? That this game has an end for me, but carries on regardless?